3 STEPS TO STRONGER STI­FLES

Pro­gre••ive •tretch­ing and •trength­en­ing ex­erci•e• that tar­get •pe­cific mu•cle• and lig­a­ment• can keep thi• im­por­tant joint in peak con­di­tion.

Practical Horseman - - Center Aisle - By Ken­neth L. Marcella, DVM

The equine sti­fle is sim­i­lar, anatom­i­cally and phys­i­o­log­i­cally, to the hu­man knee but a bit more com­plex and gen­er­ally more sta­ble. Both joints use cru­ci­ate and patella lig­a­ments, along with other sta­bi­liz­ing struc­tures, to con­nect the bony frame­work that make up the joint: the tibia, fibula, fe­mur and patella (knee cap). Horses, how­ever, have much big­ger quadri­ceps, the large mus­cles above the knee that make up the thigh, and three patella lig­a­ments com­pared to only one in hu­mans. These ex­tra lig­a­ments fac­tor into the unique biome­chan­ics that al­low the horse to “lock” his knee cap and achieve a deep rest­ing state while stand­ing up, which was an im­por­tant evo­lu­tion­ary ad­van­tage for a prey an­i­mal.

Even so, the sti­fle is sus­cep­ti­ble to arthri­tis, re­sult­ing from a slow process of wear and tear oc­cur­ring as a nor­mal con­se­quence of ath­letic ac­tiv­ity, and/or more acute, trau­matic soft-tis­sue strains and tears. Soft-tis­sue dam­age, such as cru­ci­ate-lig­a­ment tears and menis­cal (fi­bro­car­ti­lage discs be­tween the fe­mur and tibia) in­juries, are gen­er­ally less com­mon in horses than in hu­mans be­cause of the in­creased sta­bil­ity of the equine sti­fle. These types of prob­lems, how­ever, are se­ri­ous and can end a horse’s ath­letic ca­reer.

Who’s at Risk

In­juries to the lig­a­ments of the equine sti­fle gen­er­ally re­sult from a com­bi­na­tion of speed and ro­ta­tion: awk­ward take­offs or land­ings from jumps, sud­den stops, quick changes of direc­tion and other mis­steps a horse may take when trav­el­ing at speed or when out of bal­ance. In these in­stances, a horse’s at­tempt to un­evenly load iso­lated parts of the sti­fle can over­stress some of the joint’s sta­bi­liz­ing struc­tures, caus­ing in­jury. Dres­sage horses, who do not per­form at speed like jumpers and even­ters, may also be sus­cep­ti­ble to sti­fle in­juries be­cause the re­quire­ments of their sport ne­ces­si­tate bend­ing and ro­tat­ing their up­per bod­ies, which can also place the sti­fle joint at risk.

But it isn’t only equine ath­letes whose sti­fles are at risk of in­jury. Any

“pas­ture potato” can in­cur a sti­fle in­jury from di­rect trauma, such as kicks, slips, falls or prob­lems of­ten as­so­ci­ated with bad foot­ing from wet, muddy or icy con­di­tions. In fact, it is of­ten these weaker, less fit and over­weight horses who more com­monly sus­tain sti­fle in­juries. In­ad­e­quately de­vel­oped ab­dom­i­nal and core muscling, along with a gen­eral lack of con­di­tion­ing and tone, place these horses at greater risk. Poor foot care and im­bal­anced land­ing and load­ing can am­plify the un­even forces on the body and po­ten­tially lead to sti­fle in­juries as well.

Young horses are es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble dur­ing growth spurts (pe­ri­ods of rapid bone and body-mass devel­op­ment, char­ac­ter­ized by un­even growth of dif­fer­ent struc­tures) as their lig­a­ments of­ten be­come ei­ther tighter or more lax de­pend­ing on the chang­ing bones and joint an­gles. Since the sti­fle joint con­sists of four bones and var­i­ous lig­a­ments, this area is fre­quently in­volved in growthre­lated prob­lems. As a young horse’s sti­fle bones de­velop, it can take time for the slower grow­ing lig­a­ments to catch up and for the quadri­ceps mus­cle to also grow in size and strength.

Dur­ing these pe­ri­ods, rid­ers of­ten com­ment that their pre­vi­ously prob­lem­free horses now feel “weak be­hind” or “not con­nected.” These horses may stum­ble more fre­quently; they may fall out be­hind; and their sti­fle joints may even make pop­ping or click­ing noises. When go­ing down­hill, rid­ers on these grow­ing young­sters may ex­pe­ri­ence a gen­eral un­will­ing­ness and in­abil­ity to main­tain a straight line (the horse will try to pro­ceed down­hill at an an­gle) and even in­ter­mit­tent near-col­lapse in se­vere cases. Although these symp­toms oc­ca­sion­ally in­di­cate struc­tural prob­lems, they are most of­ten signs of weak­ness.

Turnout and Stretch­ing

Care­ful pro­gres­sive strength­en­ing work can help pro­tect your horse’s sti­fles against in­jury, es­pe­cially if that area is al­ready weaker due to con­for­ma­tion, lack of con­di­tion­ing or other fac­tors. If he is ob­vi­ously lame or if a joint is swollen, ten­der and/or painful, then seek vet­eri­nary at­ten­tion to rule out any med­i­cal causes be­fore start­ing a strength­en­ing pro­gram. Once you are sure he is ca­pa­ble of tol­er­at­ing a fitness pro­gram, how­ever, then the more you sen­si­bly con­di­tion him, the fewer in­juries he will likely ex­pe­ri­ence. This is es­pe­cially true for the sti­fle joint. Here are two gen­eral ways to strengthen it:

1. In­crease over­all daily move­ment. Give your horse as much turnout as pos­si­ble, ide­ally on pas­ture with rolling hills and with tractable com­pan­ions (horses tend to be more ac­tive when pas­tured in the com­pany of oth­ers). If you are feed­ing hay, spread it out in mul­ti­ple piles so your horse has to be more ac­tive in his eat­ing be­hav­ior.

2. Per­form stretch­ing ex­er­cises. Al­ways re­mem­ber your per­sonal safety and that of your horse as you at­tempt these ex­er­cises. They are best done in a flat area with good foot­ing and it is usu­ally nec­es­sary, es­pe­cially ini­tially, to have a helper hold your hal­tered horse with a loose but con­trolled lead. In each of the following ex­er­cises, lift your horse’s hind foot off the ground and stretch as de­scribed un­til

you feel slight re­sis­tance. Hold the stretch for 10 to 20 sec­onds as tol­er­ated, then re­lease. As he be­comes more ac­cus­tomed to and com­fort­able with a stretch­ing rou­tine, you will be able to work on grad­u­ally im­prov­ing his range of motion.

Flex the hip and sti­fle by lifting your horse’s hoof up­ward and push­ing it in­ward to­ward the mid­line of the body. (This is sim­i­lar to the motion vet­eri­nar­i­ans use to do a hock flex­ion test as part of a lame­ness or pre­pur­chase ex­am­i­na­tion.) Then, with the hoof still lifted and the hock flexed, pull the leg out­ward away from your horse’s body.

Pull the hind hoof forward to­ward the back of the knee of the front leg on the same side.

Pull the hoof back­ward, stretch­ing out the hind leg in the same po­si­tion you would use to pick out the foot or that a far­rier would use to trim it. Slow pres­sure and your horse’s re­lax­ation will even­tu­ally al­low you a good deal of ex­ten­sion in this po­si­tion.

An­other great way to be­gin get­ting your horse to stretch and use his sti­fles is

with a good-qual­ity work­ing walk, which re­quires him to be bal­anced on each leg and to use his quadri­ceps to push forward. This, in turn, strength­ens mus­cles and lig­a­ments. Ask a dres­sage in­struc­tor or other equine pro­fes­sional to show you how to get your horse prop­erly rounded in his frame and cor­rectly step­ping his hind legs up un­derneath his body. Un­der­stand that this may take some time as a weak horse will have dif­fi­culty achiev­ing a proper frame. Con­sis­tent, cor­rect slow work will pay div­i­dends over time, how­ever.

Strength­en­ing Work

A third way to strengthen the sti­fle is from ex­er­cises you do on the ground and in the sad­dle. Un­mounted ■ With your hal­tered horse held by a helper, stand a few feet off, per­pen­dic­u­lar to his hip, and grasp his tail. Gen­tly pull it to­ward you un­til you feel your horse re­sist the pres­sure and pull back. You will no­tice his back, ab­dom­i­nal mus­cles and, im­por­tantly, his quadri­ceps mus­cles tighten as he braces against your pull. Hold pres­sure for 10 to 20 sec­onds and re­lease. Re­peat this ex­er­cise 10 times on each side.

■ Hand-walk your horse up and down slight in­clines. Ask him to walk slowly and main­tain a straight line, not al­low­ing him to cheat and swing his haunches to ei­ther side. This re­quires bal­anced use of the sti­fles. Pe­ri­od­i­cally halt your horse—this in­creases the forces on the front part of the quadri­ceps and patella lig­a­ments—and then walk off again. Do­ing this ex­er­cise un­mounted is es­pe­cially valu­able be­cause the horse can fo­cus on his own bal­ance and move­ment without try­ing to com­pen­sate for the rider’s weight and po­si­tion. As with all at­tempts at strength and con­di­tion­ing work, an

im­prop­erly done ex­er­cise is nearly worth­less and of­ten dam­ag­ing, so keep the ex­er­cises sim­ple—and do sim­ple well.

■ Find a place in the pas­ture where the flat ter­rain changes into a lit­tle hill or in­cline. Stand at the break in that ter­rain and longe your horse in big cir­cles. This work is usu­ally best done at the trot. You want to have him travel for half the cir­cle on the flat ground where he can main­tain good foot­ing and then push up the hill, us­ing the lat­eral, or out­side, quadri­ceps mus­cles. Then he will travel down the hill, us­ing the me­dial, or in­side, quadri­ceps mus­cles be­fore again reach­ing flat ter­rain. By do­ing this “in­cline longe­ing” in both di­rec­tions, you can ef­fec­tively tar­get the in­side and out­side thigh mus­cles of both legs and help strengthen the sti­fles tre­men­dously. In­sist that your horse stay in bal­ance—main­tain­ing a steady pace without lean­ing to the in­side or out­side. Use proper longe­ing tech­nique to ask for length­en­ing and short­en­ing of stride and then for gait tran­si­tions, all still us­ing the in­cline for half the cir­cle. If you are not fa­mil­iar enough with good longe­ing skills, then get help from a knowl­edge­able trainer and add this in­cred­i­ble ex­er­cise to your strength­en­ing pro­gram. Mounted ■ Con­cen­trate on tran­si­tions—walk to trot, trot to can­ter, walk to can­ter, and so forth. Al­ways aim to make them smooth and bal­anced as this builds mus­cle, tight­ens lig­a­ments and pro­duces bet­ter motion.

■ When rid­ing or do­ing con­di­tion­ing work in open pas­ture or fields, in­stead of trav­el­ing in long, straight lines, make shal- low ser­pen­tines that re­quire your horse to bend and to use the in­side and out­side leg mus­cles—prin­ci­pally the quadri­ceps.

■ If you have ac­cess to deep sand, such as beaches or other soft sur­faces, prac­tice rid­ing in it. Stren­u­ous work on sur­faces like these can cause other in­juries if you do too much too soon. So pay close at­ten­tion to my ad­vice that fol­lows about build­ing up grad­u­ally. As your horse’s strength im­proves, con­cen­trate on mo­tions that also prin­ci­pally use the me­dial and lat­eral quadri­ceps mus­cles, like cir­cles and spi­rals.

Rid­ers have a ten­dency to overdo strength train­ing at first—and to give up on it too early. What­ever ex­er­cises you de­cide to do, it is very im­por­tant to progress slowly and in a step-by-step man­ner. Com­mit to a long-term pro­gram, start with short, easy ses­sions and never in­crease both in­ten­sity and du­ra­tion of ex­er­cise at the same time.

Com­mit to a long-term pro­gram, start with short, easy ses­sions and never in­crease both in­ten­sity and du­ra­tion of ex­er­cise at the same time.

For ex­am­ple, if you start with 15 min­utes of longe­ing on flat ground—in­clud­ing warm-up, cool down and mul­ti­ple changes of direc­tion—re­peat the same pro­gram in your next ses­sion. If your horse does that eas­ily, then add three to five min­utes in the next ses­sion. Con­tinue grad­u­ally in­creas­ing the du­ra­tion for seven to 10 ses­sions un­til your work­out time is 30 min­utes or longer. Then you can re­duce the du­ra­tion of time for a par­tic­u­lar ses­sion and add some hill work ( in­crease in­ten-

sity)—do­ing, for ex­am­ple, 10 min­utes of flat longe­ing and eight min­utes of walk­ing up and down hills. If, at any point, your horse seems to be strug­gling with a work­out, you can al­ways sim­ply go back to the lower-level in­ten­sity ses­sion that you had pre­vi­ously been do­ing eas­ily and stay there for a while longer be­fore try­ing to in­crease in­ten­sity again.

Mix these strength-train­ing ses­sions into your reg­u­lar train­ing rou­tine, which should in­volve a min­i­mum of three days of ex­er­cise per week but prefer­ably four or five. Wear a watch and time each ses­sion and avoid over­work­ing, es­pe­cially when a ses­sion is go­ing re­ally well. Keep a record of your pro­gram and mon­i­tor in­ten­sity and du­ra­tion. This will help you chart progress and de­cide when to push the con­di­tion­ing and when to back off and al­low your horse a bit of train­ing rest—both of which are im­por­tant when try­ing to achieve bet­ter fitness.

With me­thod­i­cal train­ing, pa­tience and at­ten­tion to ex­er­cises that tar­get the spe­cific mus­cles and lig­a­ments in­volved, you can help strengthen your horse’s sti­fles and as­sure him a hap­pier, health­ier ath­letic ca­reer.

Dr. Ken­neth L. Marcella is a grad­u­ate of the New York State Col­lege of Vet­eri­nary Medicine at Cor­nell Univer­sity. For more than 30 years he has treated sporthorses of all dis­ci­plines and lev­els, in­clud­ing in­ter­na­tional com­peti­tors. Dr. Marcella has served as a vet­eri­nary of­fi­cial at many events around the world, in­clud­ing na­tional cham­pi­onships, World Equestrian Games and Olympic com­pe­ti­tions. He is board-cer­ti­fied in ther­mal imag­ing and is cur­rently serv­ing on the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee for the United States En­durance Team.

With an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in English from Dart­mouth Col­lege, Dr. Marcella has also writ­ten ar­ti­cles for nu­mer­ous pub­li­ca­tions, in­clud­ing Dres­sage To­day, DVM 360, En­durance News, The Amer­i­can Quar­ter Horse Jour­nal, and the Thor­ough­bred Times. In his free time, he plays and coaches hockey.

the need for an ap­proach geared to­ward grow­ing the mem­ber­ship and bring­ing “the joy of horse sports to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble.”

Build a Fan Base

For some time, the USEF has been faced with the fact that just over 4 per­cent of the coun­try’s 1.9 mil­lion horse own­ers—about 82,000 peo­ple—are its mem­bers. Most be­long only be­cause it’s a re­quire­ment for com­pet­ing at rec­og­nized shows. Even many mem­bers of USEF af­fil­i­ates, such as the Ara­bian Horse As­so­ci­a­tion and the U.S. Event­ing As­so­ci­a­tion, don’t have a fed­er­a­tion mem­ber­ship card. The only seg­ment show­ing an in­crease in mem­bers is jumpers. The other 28 breeds and dis­ci­plines are in what es­sen­tially amounts to no-growth mode. In ad­di­tion, although some 17,000 peo­ple be­come new USEF mem­bers each year, the or­ga­ni­za­tion also loses 17,000—many dropping out for col­lege or to start a fam­ily.

To en­cour­age con­sis­tent growth, the new strate­gic plan is geared to­ward get­ting more peo­ple in­volved in the or­ga­ni­za­tion. It calls for hav­ing a fan base like the Dutch fed­er­a­tion, which served as a model for some of the im­prove­ments pro­posed by the USEF. To­ward that end, 22,000 Pony Club­bers and in­ter­col­le­giate rid­ers were given free year-long fan mem­ber­ships for 2017 with the hope that they will pay $25 to re­new in 2018.

Fan mem­ber­ship—like all USEF mem­ber­ships—in­cludes ac­cess to a new ed­u­ca­tional on­line learn­ing cen­ter with how-to videos from top peo­ple in the horse busi­ness such as Olympians McLain Ward and Phillip Dut­ton, ac­cess to the USEF Net­work that airs ma­jor com­pe­ti­tions and ben­e­fits such as dis­counts on a va­ri­ety of horse-re­lated items, in­clud­ing equip­ment.

New plans also call for find­ing a way to have un­rec­og­nized shows come into the fold while giv­ing grass­roots rid­ers a chance to get started in un­rec­og­nized classes at rec­og­nized shows.

At the elite level, the United States is one of the most suc­cess­ful coun­tries in in­ter­na­tional equestrian com­pe­ti­tion, and the USEF sees that distinc­tion as an ad­di­tional mar­ket­ing tool. So re­sources will con­tinue to go to­ward in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion, but rather than fa­vor a rel­a­tively small num­ber of elite per­form­ers at what might be thought of as the top of a tri­an­gle, the USEF is now seek­ing ways to en­cour­age the con­tin­uum of horse sport, which Kessler de­scribes as a cir­cle. As a re­sult, the suc­cess of rid­ers in the Olympics and other elite in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions will be used to at­tract more peo­ple to horse sports, which in turn will in­crease rev­enue, par­tic­i­pa­tion and a deeper ta­lent pool for high-pro­file events.

Em­power Af­fil­i­ates

The strate­gic plan of­fers an op­por­tu­nity for fence-mend­ing over the di­vide be­tween the in­ter­na­tional dis­ci­plines and the na­tional breeds and dis­ci­plines that are the bulk of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s af­fil­i­ates.

Cyn­thia Richard­son, past pres­i­dent of the Ara­bian Horse As­so­ci­a­tion and also a mem­ber of the USEF board, hopes for more recog­ni­tion for the na­tional af­fil­i­ates. She re­counted what hap­pened a year ago at a round­table meet­ing where af­fil­i­ate rep­re­sen­ta­tives gath­ered to dis­cuss their sta­tus. “We’ve felt short-changed for a long time and when they asked us last year who was happy, not one per­son raised their hand,” Richard­son said. “We are not and should not be treated as the lowly folks. We pro­vided a tremen­dous amount of money to this as­so­ci­a­tion.”

Richard­son said that she does un­der­stand that field­ing in­ter­na­tional teams costs money. “At the same time,” she con­tin­ued, “if we in the na­tional dis­ci­plines come up with a re­ally good idea, then fund­ing should be found for us to do that.” With the un­veil­ing of the strate­gic plan, she said, “I think we have our foot in the door. We just have to make sure we don’t be­come in­vis­i­ble again.”

Rob Burk, CEO of the U.S. Event­ing As­so­ci­a­tion, echoed many other peo­ple at the meet­ing when he said: “I’m cau­tiously op­ti­mistic.”

Strive for Progress

The strate­gic plan also in­cludes an em­pha­sis on im­prov­ing shows. While it’s been made sim­pler for ex­hibitors to com­ment about con­di­tions (the form has gone from five pages to three ques­tions), in­spec­tions by per­son­nel trained to eval­u­ate shows likely will pro­vide the great­est im­pe­tus for im­prove­ment.

The wel­fare and safety of both horse and rider con­tinue to be paramount. The USEF han­dles this on many fronts, though per­haps the most vis­i­ble in­volves drug test­ing to en­sure “a level play­ing field.” Kessler, who took over the USEF pres­i­dency at the an­nual meet­ing, em­pha­sized how im­por­tant it is to stop those who cheat.

The strate­gic plan also calls for in­creas­ing the base of para-equestrian sport in the United States, some­thing that has been done in Bri­tain, which dom­i­nates the gold medals in para-dres­sage.

As a fi­nal note of his pre­sen­ta­tion, Kessler an­nounced that the USEF will build a new head­quar­ters at the Ken­tucky Horse Park. The struc­ture that now serves as its home there in Lex­ing­ton, Ken­tucky, is ex­pen­sive to lease and un­sat­is­fac­tory on sev­eral counts. The USEF will save an es­ti­mated $300,000 a year by re­lo­cat­ing to a higher qual­ity prop­erty that it owns. The move prob­a­bly will oc­cur in 2019 af­ter the lease on its cur­rent build­ing ends.— Nancy Jaf­fer

The equine sti­fle uses cru­ci­ate and patella lig­a­ments, along with other sta­bi­liz­ing struc­tures, to con­nect the bony frame­work that makes up the joint: the tibia, fibula, fe­mur and patella (knee cap).

Step 2: With the hoof still lifted and the hock flexed, push the point of the hock (Point A) to­ward the mid­line while you pull the foot lat­er­ally, or away, from the mid­line (Point B). This motion ro­tates the sti­fle and stresses, and even­tu­ally strength­ens, the lig­a­ments and sup­port­ing struc­tures of the me­dial, or in­side, sti­fle. Re­vers­ing this ex­er­cise—pulling the point of the hock out­ward and push­ing the hoof me­di­ally, or in­ward, ro­tates the sti­fle in the op­po­site direc­tion and serves to strengthen the lat­eral, or out­ward, sup­port­ing struc­tures.

Step 1: I flex the horse’s hip and sti­fle by lifting the hoof up­ward and forward. As you flex the joints, help the horse main­tain his bal­ance by keep­ing the lower leg to­ward the mid­line and the horse’s weight cen­tered over the sup­port­ing leg. Each stretch should be held for 10 to 20 sec­onds ini­tially. As the horse be­comes more ac­cus­tomed to the stretch­ing rou­tine, you will be able to work on im­prov­ing his range of motion.

Walk­ing down­hill is a great ex­er­cise to make your horse uti­lize his hind end and work the mus­cles and struc­tures that sup­port not only the sti­fles but the lower back and pelvis as well. Keep your horse straight—not al­low­ing him to swing his haunches left or right— and make him slowly weight each leg through the en­tire range of motion. This re­quires bal­anced use of the sti­fles.

Longe­ing on a slight in­cline iso­lates and strength­ens the lig­a­ments and mus­cle at­tach­ments on ei­ther the in­side or the out­side of the sti­fle as the horse moves around a cir­cle. Find a place in a pas­ture where the flat ter­rain changes into a lit­tle hill. Stand at the break in the ter­rain and longe your horse in big cir­cles so half the cir­cle is on flat ground and the other half is on the hill. To go up the hill, your horse will use his out­side quadri­ceps mus­cles. These mus­cles specif­i­cally sup­port the sti­fle. The lig­a­men­tous at­tach­ments of these mus­cles to the bones that make up the sti­fle joint will be­come stronger with in­cline and un­bal­anced foot­ing ex­er­cise.

Go­ing down the hill, your horse will use his in­ner quadri­ceps mus­cles. The in­ner and outer mus­cles of these ar­eas are dif­fi­cult to tar­get and peo­ple have to uti­lize side leg-pull move­ments to work and strengthen them. In­cline longe­ing is well tol­er­ated by horses and has the ad­di­tional ben­e­fit of achiev­ing bal­ance as well. In­sist that your horse main­tain a steady pace without lean­ing to the in­side or out­side. Note: Our model in these pho­tos is very calm and ex­pe­ri­enced at longe­ing so he is in a hal­ter. If your horse is more en­er­getic or an­i­mated, plan to use a bri­dle, longe­ing caves­son or other sup­port­ing/con­trol­ling aides.

An­nelise is rid­ing her horse in a can­ter that has en­gaged his hind end. This type of can­ter as well as tran­si­tions from trot to can­ter to trot will help strengthen the sti­fles and pro­vide sta­bil­ity and bal­ance.

An­nelise Stone is rid­ing As­sas­sin’s Shooter in a good work­ing trot, mak­ing sure he is en­gaged be­hind and push­ing with his hind legs to en­cour­age him to lift his back. This will help build mus­cle and strengthen the lig­a­ments of the sti­fle.

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